Stanley Crouch, Neocon or Ellisonian?

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Greg Robinson

The All-American Skin Game
By Stanly Crouch
New York: Random House, 1995, 304 papes, $12 paper.

STANLEY CROUCH SUFFERS from an advanced case of intellectual Walter Mitty disease. The self-image he created in his first collection of essays, Notes of a Hanging Judge (1989), was that of the “hanging judge,” by which he meant a hard-nosed, independent-minded critic bravely bucking the popular tide of opinion on Black American culture and race relations.

In his new book The All-American Skin Game: Or, The Decoy of Race, Crouch takes on another John Wayneish persona. He now imagines himself a gunslinger defending the besieged fortress of democracy against attacks by Black academic hustlers and brainwashed white intellectuals bent on undermining it.

Crouch complains that all who refuse to conform to the militant party line that Blacks are “essentially alienated” victims of a hopelessly racist society are branded as self-hating right-wing puppets. The author doth protest too much–both because his own style is clearly built on oppositional politics (he is a master of slashing ad hominem criticism), and also because his work contains its own share of mediocre (and reactionary) analysis.

Judging from his comment that feminists share with Nation of Islam zealots the conception of white men as the “source of all evil” (23), he can’t distinguish between “feminist” and fermisht groups.

Nevertheless, the core thesis presented by Crouch deserves to be taken seriously. I use the passive voice advisedly because, as Crouch is the first to admit, these ideas are neither novel nor original, but represent an amalgam of the late Ralph Ellison’s theories, spiced with the work of Albert Murray (author of The Omni-Americans and several important works on Black music).

Affirming Ellison’s Argument

The chief philosophical premise of the Ellisonian school is that Blacks are fundamentally American, and have been equal participants in forging a pluralistic democratic culture. American [here and throughout, read: U.S.–ed.] culture is seen to be the product of the interactions through time of different ethnic and racial groups, all of whom contribute elements of their folk cultures and adapt aspects of the larger culture.

Black Americans, due to their long history in the United States, are the most Americanized of these groups in their language, culture, and ideals.

Crouch refers warmly to Ellison and Murray as “the Twin Towers” of Black criticism. Indeed, one of the striking elements of the book is how completely he acknowledges his fealty to them, in a manner one would scarcely expect from such a veteran and self-willed critic.

In addition to an entire section, including two obituary pieces, devoted to Ellison, whom he barely mentioned in his first book, Crouch continually quotes Ellison and Murray’s favorite author, André Malraux, as well as Constance Rourke, perhaps the cultural theorist Ellison most greatly admired.

Similarly Crouch, having inherited Ellison’s and Murray’s fondness for using Black music as a metaphor for democracy and tragedy, puts it to tiresome use. First, in an extended soliloquy, he likens the U.S. Constitution in its “tragic optimism” to the Blues. Later, in an essay which veers dangerously close to self-parody, he speaks of Jacqueline Kennedy as the embodiment of blues-flavored stoicism.

Crouch has mixed success adapting the Gospel according to Ellison to current debates. Crouch firmly believes that Blacks, having catalyzed the historical struggle of Americans to realize democratic ideals, have at least as much responsibility to maintain them as other groups, and he is most successful in enunciating the importance of democratic principles.

For example, Crouch effectively takes apart Afrocentrism, arguing that its advocates not only rely on poor scholarship and dubious historical interpretation in linking Blacks directly to ancient Egyptian civilization, but that even if their arguments were all true, their work scants the very real and powerful history of Black Americans. (43)

He adds persuasively that whatever African elements survive in (Afro-) American life, they are less important than the cultural accomplishments of Blacks in the United States, or than their long struggle to realize the national ideals of democracy.

The Power and Problems of Democracy

Similarly, Crouch maintains that the power of the American democratic ideal lies in its capacity to absorb immigrants on an equal basis, even those from what he calls unsophisticated (i.e. non-European) cultures.

In a brilliant but underdeveloped essay, he mocks the authors of The Bell Curve, offspring of immigrant groups whose members were viewed with disdain and suspicion by native-born whites (themselves the product of contract-laborers, convicts and other “human scum”), as forgetting their “culturally black” heritage of victimization by prejudice, and trying to “pass for white” by making antidemocratic assumptions about other groups.

Crouch calls for Blacks to take responsibility for democratic society. Like Ellison, he rejects the idea that Blacks are somehow inherently limited because of their skin color, though he borrows his mentor’s unfortunate policy of accusing liberals and “Jewish opportunists” (107) of lining their pockets by peddling sociological notions of Black pathology in place of serious discussion of inner-city problems.

Ellisonians maintain that Blacks are not fatally harmed by prejudice, since it does not inhibit freedom of imagination and the constant interchange of cultural styles. Ellison always insisted that Black life was not merely a “burden,” but contained many joyful and even superior elements.

In parallel, Crouch points out that it was a supposedly “culturally deprived” people who developed the most sophisticated and identifiably American modes of musical expression. There is no logical reason, he says, to assume that discrimination dehumanizes Blacks any more than the other “culturally black” ethnic minorities who have been victimized by it.

Rather, discrimination is merely an annoyance and obstacle that Blacks must overcome, as others do, by perseverance and the pursuit of excellence. Black Americans are just as diverse and complicated as others, and a common racial background by itself is no better a predictor of the individual’s capabilities than class, ethnicity, or regional background.

These are all valuable points to remember. But herein lies a problem. Crouch claims that Blacks, instead of maintaining their “morale” to fight for democracy, contribute to their dehumanization by embracing a culture of puerile nihilism and alienation symbolized by rap music.

Blacks enslaved by the Black Nationalist “cult of ethnic authenticity,” which “often mistakes the least common denominator for an ideal” (180) do not push themselves hard enough at school and on the job for fear of seeming to deny their blackness by conforming to “middle-class white” values.

Crouch particularly deplores the narrowness and mediocrity of most Black education, which does not leave Blacks free to compete and succeed on an equal level.

Rap, Alienation and Reality

Well, there is to be sure no shortage of specious posing and intellectual absurdity in the current-day fashion for militant and Afrocentric theories of blackness. Still, the alienation reflected in such theories and in rap music does reflect a certain reality.

It is all very well to seek knowledge and increase one’s personal culture, and there is some truth to the idea that one’s expectations shape one’s chances for success, although Crouch’s reference to “the Afro-American tradition of seeking to be the best” (27) is as oversimplified and dubious as the ethnic “authenticity” he deplores.

Nonetheless, the problems of Black life do not result primarily from Black scorn for success. The existence of such pressure is not new–Ellison often cited Booker T. Washington’s description of the Black community as a bucket of crabs who pull back anyone who tries to get out–and it is illogical to assume that it has only now become decisive.

That alienation, moreover, is not merely the province of down-and-out Black thugs and bourgeois Blacks paralyzed by guilt at having “made it.” The Blacks, primarily working class, who furnished the shock troops for the Million Man March obviously felt themselves a race apart in the United States long before Farrakhan sought to attract them with his loathsome nationalist siren song.

Crouch may wish away double consciousness as a victim’s fiction, but even Ellison, though he fully accepted his American identity, spoke of himself as simultaneously inside and outside the culture.

Attitude and Environment

In any case, Crouch concentrates too much on cultural “attitudes” versus the sinister effects of the social environment. He would have us believe that such social factors as dangerous, overcrowded slum schools, antiquated facilities and poorly paid teachers do not greatly influence the education and training Black children receive.

Now, this is not to say that poor Blacks are inherently incapable of learning difficult subjects. It is a pleasure to see Crouch slam the elitists who confuse “lower class” with “low class” by pointing out that parents of all classes and ethnicities wish their children to succeed in school and stay out of trouble.

It is nevertheless common sense, as well as amply documented fact, that an important relationship exists between quality of schools and quality of education, irrespective of race. Students with a family or community support system that urges achievement may do better in school, but this can be exaggerated.

Crouch takes refuge in superficial cliches about the cultural factors that spur Asian students to work hard and succeed, but he fails to discuss working-class Asian immigrant communities whose students do not have resources to succeed, despite cultural imperatives. In any case, he is so allergic to separatism that he would no doubt reject attempts by Blacks to build the sense of identity that permits such strong group dominance.

Crouch is willing to assign society a share of responsibility for the problems of inner cities, but he interprets this failure as stemming from an unwillingness to enforce standards of civility and respect for the law, thus permitting the ghettos to be overrun by criminals and drug dealers.

His lack of understanding of the larger social and economic forces can be judged from his assertion that teen pregnancy and crime are symptoms of moral decadence, which can be eliminated in ten years if Americans simply stop condoning them, just as overt racial violence in the South ceased once Americans stopped tolerating it. (30)

Aside from the fact that the national crime rate is actually falling slightly and that current-day surges in violent felonies and out-of-wedlock births are an international phenomenon, high crime and low marriage rates in the Black community are more than incidentally related to the decline of well-paying industrial jobs that lift unskilled workers out of poverty and allow them to maintain families.

Crouch should recognize that just as racial violence ceased only after federal laws broke the Jim Crow system which it supported, ghetto pathology will not be easily mastered unless a broad democratic movement can persuade the government to foster the creation of such jobs.

Anyone who describes his politics as those of a “radical pragmatist” nature who affirms “whatever I think has the best chance of working” (ix) should be willing to support such a movement. Crouch in any case cannot be accused of blind attachment to a laissez-faire system, which he mocks as “the economic religion of commerce that deifies the market as an invincible god of production and consumption.” (246).

Ellison and the Left

It is a tragedy that Ellison has always been rejected as conservative, since the democratic Left needs his insights. Too many critics have confused respect for the power of democracy with complacency over the status quo (anyone who thinks Ellison was overly optimistic about American society should read his “Introduction” to the 1982 reprint of Invisible Man).

Belief in the liberating potential of common ordinary democratic ideals is not simple-minded chauvinism or a rejection of multicultural reality, but a mature reckoning of the forces that make genuine liberation possible. On this point, Crouch aids the cause of the Left by arguing that Blacks have a more powerful and complex identity as Americans than as people of color, and that it is easier and more practical to unite for freedom with all those who share similar ideals than to adopt a procrustean nationalism.

The struggle for American economic and political equality will be impotent as long as it is based on guilt or repairing past wrongs, rather than on common recognition of the forces which work against democracy and common solutions to problems which differ in degree and not in kind.

Beleaguered Ellisonians

The result of longstanding hostility to Ellisonian theory is that its adherents have had to spend so much effort defending themselves that they have not had sufficient time or energy to expand their critique to keep up with fresh developments in American society. Ellison’s own thought hardly progressed in the last thirty years of his life, as he fought his nationalist critics.

The worst aspects of Crouch’s book seem to issue from his sense of being beleaguered. The critique is hit-and-run, which means that the good pieces are placed haphazardly among a number of short and insufficiently thought-out essays.

Too often, Crouch seems merely querulous, launching soundbite-sized complaints about the fatuousness and dishonesty of Black culture and life. Crouch’s opposition to sociological views of Black life and his laudable contempt for the Black self-image of “victim” lead him to reactionary conclusions.

The last essay in the collection is a particularly flagrant example of Crouchian hyperbole. It begins with the sensible premise that Americans fail to recognize their unity within diversity; but whom does he blame for the failure? Not right-wing restrictionists and nativists, not mainstream ignorance of minority history, not a cynical, antigovernment electorate, not the economic barriers to social integration.

No, Crouch’s chief culprits are the “campus colonial chieftains” and “professors of alienation” who teach “so-called minorities, women, and homosexuals…that they will always be oppressed and that they run the danger of either being indoctrinated in self-hatred or remade into instruments of oppression [by] denying their membership in the exalted tribe.” (253)

It is hard to take seriously such ignorant and reductive D’Souziasms, especially when Crouch prefers to damn champions of feminism and Lesbian/Gay equality as separatist–rather than recognizing their continuing contributions to furthering democracy and opposing the very real and dangerous Right-wing movement that threatens it.

Crouch, that admirer of Martin Luther King, seems to prefer his freedom movements safely dead.

Yet I am persuaded that Crouch is not at heart a conservative, but defines himself by opposition to the destructive pieties which he sees coming from the Left. As a result, despite his pose of unsentimental high-mindedness, he can be distressingly soft-headed about right-wing platitudes.

Crouch clearly feels isolated within progressive circles, but it is the Left that most desperately needs to retain the message about building a cohesive democratic society. With that instinct for improvisation and bricolage which Crouch and his gurus most admire about Americans, we must read Crouch closely and adapt whatever points in his work we find correct and useful.

ATC 66, January-February 1997